What a complete waste of time, effort and taxpayers’ money

Warning: this is an unedited ramble on a career blip.

So, its 10pm Friday night and its been quite a week. My other half is still at work and I’m at home drowning my sorrows.


This week our property purchase fell through, our relationship suffered as a consequence and I’ve decided to quit my current role at the Government Digital Service (GDS).

The pillars of my life are my relationship, doing my public duty, and my home. All 3 pillars have just wobbled. As I said, quite a week.

The quitting my job bit is by mutual agreement with my line manager. In 6 months of trying to be the service manager’s community manager, I feel that I’ve delivered jack shit.

That isn’t completely accurate, obviously, but it feels close enough.

Right now I’m not entirely sure where I’ve gone wrong (I will find out) but I suspect it revolves around choosing a role, any role, other than continuing to support Contracts Finder (a ‘service’ that GDS inherited, not something we designed and built).

I arrived at GDS in mid-September 2012, a month before DirectGov and BusinessLink were switched off and replaced with GOV.UK

It was an amazing time. Frenetic, heated, inspiring. The government digital equivalent of going to the moon.

I told my then line manager I was happy to support Contracts Finder (I love transparency and open data, which its supposed to do) but it would drive me nuts after 6 months, which it did. I ended up back on medication to regulate by bipolar type II affect disorder, a mental health ‘gift’ that makes me manic.

After 18 months at GDS still working on Contracts Finder I blindly took another job, the one I’ve just agreed to quit.

This was my 2nd mistake.

My 1st mistake was joining GDS.

That last sentence is NOT something I type lightly, as I love my employer. I fundamentally believe in our design principles, I think the service manual is a truly beautiful piece of work, and that we’re going in the right direction to help improve digital capability in the civil service.

But I didn’t do any of that. For 18 months I supported a complex, badly documented service that users hated (1st mistake) then in a moment of mental health induced mania jumped to a role I shouldn’t have (2nd mistake).

What a complete waste of time, effort and taxpayers’ money.

The reason for typing this today (Friday 10 October 2014) is that its World Mental Health Day. I don’t blame my mental health, I blame myself (not that I see the 2 as separate things). Bipolar is part of me; something I can use or abuse – a ‘gift’ I live with. But its not a excuse – I would never use it as a ‘get out of jail free’ card, and go on protracted sick leave. That’s not me.

But I will no longer will a take a job because it (or the organisation its in) are shiny and cool.

From now on, I will avoid knee jerk decisions when my judgement is impaired.

I know what I want to do with my life (I can’t tell you cause it breaks some rules) and its time I start getting there.

Contact me on Twitter via @jaCattell and ask me how I am, please. If I reply “good” then bitch slap me back to reality, because you can’t have the good without the bad. Its just not the way life works.


Keeping up with the #GOVUK blogs

There are many fascinating things to read on blog.gov.uk. However there isn’t a blogroll (a list of all the blogs) available in Outline Processor Markup Language (OPML) format. OPML files can be imported to your favourite blog reader. This saves you time and effort.

So one weekend I hacked together:

I used this to inform the Service Manager community of interesting things. I continue to use it for my own learning and development. Sometimes I share things I see with a wider audience.

Keeping this service updated is currently a manual process. Every Monday morning I:

Enjoy 🙂

Reflecting on #CivilServiceLive Liverpool

Today I helped out an annual thing for civil servants in Liverpool called civil service live. It is one of a series of events held across the county at this time of year including days at Bristol, Newcastle and London. It is my 2nd year attending but first year doing, as the Government Digital Service asked me to help man our stall and also do tech support in our digital skills sessions.

The digital skills bit was easy for me; setup 10 iPads with internet connections and access to Trello, Doodle and Google Docs. These are some of the open internet tools my team has published advice on for civil servants, in a kind of disruptive attempt to influence civil service reform. In the question and answer part of the session I helped out in, most people voiced concerns about their department’s ability to provide suitable technology and internet access. Therefore, I think we need to write a 1 pager of water tight reasons why departments should provide colleagues with space to experiment and try new things, ie the digital services we take for granted.

We didn’t allow enough time in the session for people to actually try the tools and discuss how they could be used. Also the ‘mobile’ web interface to Google Docs on iPads doesn’t allow you to see realtime changes being made to collaborative documents. Next time we should use Chromebooks, not iPads.

Manning the stall was great fun and I loved talking about our design principles, especially putting user needs first. The only question I couldn’t answer was when the Universal Credit exemplar would go live, as this is not stated on the transformation page. I talked with a passion about the www.gov.uk platform, our transformation programme and my favourite, the service design manual.  Several questions were around ‘what is agile?’ or ‘what is a discovery phase?’ which the design manual answers nicely. I wrote out the webpage address http://www.gov.uk/service-manual several times on post-it notes, which is a good way of showing we are not exclusively digital at the expensive of pen and paper.

In the pub afterwards, a colleague suggested part of the event should be an unconference, ie space for people to pitch sessions they want to talk about.  I will follow this up with the Civil Service Live organisers and see what they think.

All in all I’m glad I used taxpayers money to travel and stay in Liverpool, because I helped spread awareness to fellow civil servants of digital and how it can help them.

The gov.uk helpdesk


So, I’ve been a User Support Lead at the government digital service since 18th September.  Initially I did my own thing for the first week, introducing myself to people and bothering them with questions.  Week 2, I built use cases for the contracts finder product we’ll be supporting.  Week 3, I’m leading work around preparing the helpdesk for our first major product release on 17th October.  The product is gov.uk which replaces both direct.gov.uk and businesslink.gov.uk.  This is a major milestone for the government digital service and will set the tone for future product releases, such as Inside Government due to be released in mid-November.

Helpdesk to do list

The helpdesk system in use at the government digital service is called Zendesk, which is used by other governments


Personally, my top priority is to increase my knowledge to the point where I consider myself an expert.  By expert, I mean the person my colleagues turn to for advice.  My colleagues priorities are to: –

  1. Create multiple organisations in our helpdesk, i.e. an extranet for suppliers and other government departments
    1. This allows us to “route” helpdesk tickets, chase them up and serve our customers better
    2. Otherwise, we’d have to fire emails into the ether and hope for the best
  2. Complete the knowledge base containing user support contacts and macro descriptions
  3. Sort out integration with other tools we use
  4. Get everyone up to speed, i.e. training videos.

How will I achieve this?

Through sheer bloody minded hard work, obviously 🙂  Also, who we are helps: –

Zendesk are willing to help.  The gov.uk delivery manager, operations manager & I met with our Zendesk “account executive” at the end of last week.  We left them with a series of questions which you can see here.  I chased them a few days later but didn’t get all the answers I need.  So, I’ve booked a call with Zendesk’s resident techie for 201210101500.

Acquiring knowledge + testing it

Zendesk have detailed support pages and a YouTube channel that I’ve been learning from.  I’m still a little unclear on the nuances of triggers, tags and macros and need to increase my knowledge, especially with tags.  Fortunately, Zendesk has a sandbox feature that allows us to test stuff before making it live.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t been used by the government digital service yet, but I’ll see that changes.  Annoying, Zendesk doesn’t yet have a built-in way to deploy from sandbox to production, even though it was requested as a feature back in 2010.  Fortunately, a 3rd party appears to have built an add-on that will do it for us.  Unfortunately, government procurement can be challenging.  Hey ho.


We had a retrospective meeting last week, which helped the Operations Team learn what went well, what didn’t and compile questions and actions.  Here is a picture of Megan, our excellent Delivery Manager, facilitating the session: –
One of the things I suggested was a video of what we do, inspired by the recent Infrastructure Team’s effort (see our YouTube channel for more).  Essentially, a video helps promote ourselves both internally to colleagues and externally to our customers.  You may ask, “why promote yourself internally?” to which the simple answer is that the government digital service has around 180 staff.  We’re busy and don’t get enough time to interact (something I’m working on – more on that another time).

Is this all doable by gov.uk launch date?

In a word, yes (well, maybe not the video).  Zendesk is mostly ready, staff are in place and everyone knows what to expect.  We just need to test, test and re-test, then settle in for the switchover on 17th October.  To take my mind off work, I’m going to the Made in Lambeth 2 event the weekend before launch.  Plus, release any pent up aggression at LYC Badminton.  Simples! 🙂

#LocalGov to #GovUK @GDSTeam – OMG!

I have moved from Birmimgham City Council (BCC) to the Government Digital Service (GDS) in London, taking up a role as User Support Lead and today, Tuesday 18th September 2012 is my first day.  I’m a little excited, to put it mildly 🙂

GDS focus on making national Government more efficient (at least from a digital point of view) building on the work done by DirectGov and others.  I will help shape a world class user support team, solving issues and garnering feedback to improve our service.

So, I’m a civil servant now, not a public servant, right?  Or am I both? #confused.

This is an important distinction, as during my involvement in the recent “Local GDS” buzz, a wise #GovUK sage connected me in private and advised me to think and act carefully.  I had created the @LGDSTeam Twitter account and associated blog and was bashing out ideas and interacting with others.  Even with my usual good intentions, this was wrong, especially without first consulting my new employer.  So I stopped using @LGDSTeam and changed the bio to read, “I have moved to @LocalGovDigital. NB:This account is in no way, shape or form related to @gdsteam“.

This is important, because the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) look after local Government, not GDS.  National Government consists of a dozen or so departments.  Local Government consists of well over 400 local authorities.  Whatever parallels in efficiency savings though the use of digital technology I had imagined, I had joined 2 dots without first considering the implications.  Anyway, lesson learnt. Promise.

So, my main concern; I’m now a civil servant.  Will I need to start thinking even more politically than I did in BCC?  Is “politically” the right word?  Please help me by commenting below.

I have much to learn about GDS’ mandate and will certainly will be reading up on it over the next few days and asking many, many questions of my new boss.  On my reading hit list are: –

  1. Government ICT Strategy – Strategic Implementation Plan
  2. Government Digital Service – Putting the public first…
  3. Re-read all the blogs and comments at digital.cabinetoffice.gov.uk

I don’t want to hang up my funky #LocalGov baseball cap and start parading around in a #GovUK bowler hat (not that such a thing exists any more, I hope).

I do want to help find the common “digitally efficient” ground between #LocalGov and #GovUK.

But boy, am I gonna do it carefully, referring to experts and taking advice.

GDS + data.gov.uk = sense?

Had an interesting conversation with a highly experienced and knowledgeable Government employee recently.

After flirting around several fascinating topics, we eventually discussed open data and its place in national and local Government.

From the sound of it, the current Government is going to bail on the whole “schmazel” of open data.

I hope that: –

a) I got the wrong end of the stick

b) The individual is just downtrodden by their experience with open data

c) They were just wrong.

My friend had an idea; if the Government Digital Service (GDS) is perceived to be doing good stuff, why not roll data.gov.uk under GDS’s wing and give open data a potential shot in the arm?

I liked this idea.  Not because I’m (hopefully) about to start working for GDS, but I love open data and want it to grow, growing our economy in the process.

data.gov.uk has received some negative press recently: –

Four out of five people who visit the data.gov.uk website leave it immediately without accessing links to data, says the parliamentary watchdog, and there are big gaps in information about adult social care and other parts of the public sector, so that people cannot use it to make informed choices.

Read the full article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/public-leaders-network/2012/aug/01/government-transparency-public-accounts-committee

My own experience of contacting data.gov.uk (as someone who is building the open data plan for the largest unitary authority in Europe) has been inconsistent.  Yes, they were launching an improved version of their website at the time, but 3 weeks to reply to an email?  That’s rather poor in my book.

So, what am I saying here?  Well, if its true that the Government will “go South” on open data, then I agree; pick data.gov.uk and GDS up, and squeeze them together into one small powerful ball of hot, glowing power.

What do you think, please?